Research & Thought Leadership

The paradox of trying too hard at leadership

Julie Jessup, Coach at Hult EF Corporate Education

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Often, those who most want to lead with impact end up over-focusing on themselves

Dalia recently joined a new company as their CEO. She had done her homework, worked hard to get to know the people and understand the environment, and had set out a clear vision with a strategy to get there. When Dalia is at her best, she listens with deep curiosity and is completely focused on the context, the people and the issues. But when we met, things had become more stressful. She was struggling with several members of her team and her reactions were getting increasingly defensive. As Dalia’s self-confidence wavered, she turned her energy inward. Her radar was working at full-capacity to notice and neutralize threats. She was listening, but subconsciously, using much of her energy to “hear” what people thought of what she was saying, how she was coming across, what she may have done wrong.

She had constructed an impossibly high bar, and her focus was about her own ability to meet the challenge. Her strengths in being reflective, analyzing situations, and striving to constantly learn and develop, which normally helped her to build her success, started to create their own challenges.

Through my coaching, I have worked with countless clients who can fall into this trap. The desire to be an impactful leader can get sabotaged by their fear of not making the grade.

Can Imposter Syndrome or having “Something to Prove” draw your focus inward?

It seemed counter-intuitive until I realized that there was a clear pattern, especially amongst leaders with varying degrees of imposter syndrome, or leaders with something they feel they need to prove. The pattern goes something like this: Their greatest professional ambition is to lead, inspire, and develop others and they have been successful/lucky enough to get a leadership position. Their attention starts to focus inward, watching and evaluating themselves to make sure that they are meeting and hopefully going way beyond expectations. The problem is, leading, inspiring and developing others is not about them — it is about the wider context, the people, and the specific challenges. Because they are focused inward, they can greatly reduce their capacity to notice everything else going on in any situation, and miss opportunities to support and lead their teams and organizations.

What are the Missed Opportunities?

When people begin to focus too much on themselves as they strive for excellence in leadership, they may hear things as a personal attack and react to that instead of having a deeper understanding of the pain or frustration of the person across from them.

Although few of us like to admit it, some people might become overly invested in being “right” to bolster their confidence, instead of quickly noticing when an idea is not working and adapting it. Alternatively, so worried about being wrong that they become overly risk averse and miss key opportunities. And the list goes on.

When we are overly focused on our own insecurity as a leader, we can become blind to the systems and people we want to lead.

So, what does “good” look like?

The most impactful for me was Peter, who I met in a training program. Although we hardly spoke, I watched as people were drawn to him. Not because he positioned himself as a guru, or because he told stories of his successes, but I believe because he made every person in that room feel seen and heard. He was curious, interested, and generous, focused on what was happening in the moment and how he could learn and bring others along with him. His quiet confidence over those few days became an aspirational leadership (and life) goal for me. Peter was not in a high stress, high stakes position like Dalia. It is significantly more challenging to hold onto that outward focus when you are stressed and exhausted. Practicing when things are a bit calmer can make a big difference, and help this posture to become a pattern for you.

You Cannot Wish Yourself Confident

So how to get started? Here are some strategies to try for yourself:

Listen with curiosity

This may sound easy, but it is not, especially when tired, stressed or feeling insecure. It means listening to understand versus listening to answer. When you notice you are thinking of your counter arguments instead of listening and being curious — let it go, and come back to focusing completely on the other person.

Pick someone else

Choose someone in your next meeting and do what you can to help that person succeed and “look good”. This forces your focus outside of yourself and can begin a chain reaction. It requires you to see more of what is going on in the room, listen to others from that person’s perspective, and requires you to flex your empathy and compassion, which in turn can give you confidence.

Turn your Threat Scanner Outside

Many leaders have an amazing radar. They tend to notice subtle signals in the environment that others miss. The danger comes when everything this radar is picking up is interpreted in a way that confirms a negative story. Instead, turn this radar outside. Tell yourself several stories about what might be going on, and make sure that a few of these versions do not have you in the leading role.

Julie Jessup is a Leadership Coach and Advisor and has been developing leaders for over 30 years. Examples are with the approval of the client and have been changed to ensure anonymity. To find out how 1:1 coaching can help you, explore our coaching services.

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